Mario Bava is credited as the first director to breathe life into the giallo genre with his 1963 work, The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Ironically however, Bava is best known for being one of the most underrated auteurs of Italian horror. Often cited as the Italian Hitchcock, Mario Bava's beginnings as a painter and special effects assistant for his father were a small taste of what was to come. Early in his career, he worked with many of the pioneers of Italian horror including Riccardo Freda, before going solo and gaining popularity for his strong visual style. Though his filmography was plagued by a limited budget, Bava was resourceful and his style has been imitated by many, inspiring generations of filmmakers. His 1971 film Bay of Blood is considered one of the earliest slasher films and a direct influence on the original Friday the 13th.
The same year as Bava's giallo masterpiece, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, he released the horror anthology I Tre volti della paura otherwise known as Black Sabbath. The Italian title translates to The Three Faces of Fear, which is exactly what Bava delivers in three richly atmospheric Gothic tales. The film features horror icon Boris Karloff as the host, who also stars in the story, The Wurdalak. When American International Pictures distributed Black Sabbath in the U.S. they altered the film substantially. They rearranged the order of the stories which changed the climactic point and cut portions of episodes to make them more suitable for younger viewers. The film has since been restored to the original Italian version, which excludes Karloff's segments between stories but does contain his introduction and humorous epilogue. Sadly, they have dubbed his distinctive voice with that of an Italian actor. Also restored is Roberto Nicolosi's minimal ambient score which is a more effective contribution to the haunting storylines. Lastly, the AIP version indicates in the DVD liner notes that Bava's stories were adapted from the works of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Maupassant. It's more likely that the studio was following the same successful model used with Roger Corman and his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and used the authors as a way to stir up interest.
Following the order of the Italian version, Bava's thriller, The Telephone, starts the trilogy off as arguably one of his first giallo prototypes. The glamorous and gorgeous Rosy (Michele Mercier) returns home late one evening after a party and is beset by a series of phone calls from her ex-lover (or pimp) Frank. It gradually emerges that she was instrumental in getting him sent to prison and that he has escaped to seek revenge. She desperately pleads with her ex-friend Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) to come over for protection and it's revealed that Mary is the one making the calls in hopes to reconnect with Rosy. We discover through their conversation that the women were once lovers and it's quite clear that Mary still desires her. It's suggested that they share a bed and we next see Mary writing a confession letter to Rosy, apologizing for her stunt. She's interrupted by Frank who strangles her. As Rosy watches from the bed, will she be next? The AIP version of The Telephone removed the lesbian subplot and altered the dialogue which created a completely different and less successful ending. The Telephone is evidence of some of the first imagery used that would become archetypal of the giallo genre: the telephone, black gloves and a knife used in conjunction with dramatic lighting and prowling camerawork all intensifies the sense of dread and sexual anxiety.
Bava's second episode, The Wurdalak, is the longest of the three tales and feels like a study in excess with its exaggerated colors and expressionist backdrop. Vladimir (Mark Damon) is a young nobleman wandering the Russian countryside. He eventually stumbles upon a cottage where he seeks shelter with a family awaiting the return of their patriarch, Gorca (Boris Karloff). The family explains that Gorca is hunting an undead creature known as the wurdalak--a vampire who feeds on the blood of the those it loves most. When Gorca returns his unkempt appearance betrays his morbid transformation and the family finds themselves prey to the evil blood curse. AIP removed a shot of Karloff holding a severed head of a wurdalak for its version, which is ironic considering many the promotional materials featured an illustration of the image. Bava's exploration of the vampire myth in The Wurdalak is a darker and more psychological study of the creature, particularly with the suggestion of incest in the storyline. The film's bleak ending was unique for its time because darkness prevails, offering no hope for its audience.
Black Sabbath ends with A Drop of Water which tells the story of a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who is called upon to prepare the body of a deceased medium for a funeral the next morning. As she dresses the woman she notices her beautiful ring and steals it only to be haunted afterward by her guilty conscience and eventually the ghost of the medium herself. The grotesque image of the medium is laughable by today's standards, however I find it absolutely frightening that she remains a corpse throughout and appears almost doll-like. Pierreux's character is unforgiving and brusk from the moment she receives the late night call about the medium's death to her thievery, which raises an ongoing theme in Bava's work (and the trilogy)--questions and consequences of moral character. The film's ending has a deadly twist which is why the aforementioned epilogue was shot by Bava--to appease AIP's concerns that the ending was too downbeat.
Aside from The Wurdalak, Bava makes excellent use of a singular location: claustrophobic apartments with flashing lights, dripping faucets, incessant flies and ringing telephones are all manifestations of the fear and anxiety of its occupants. Bava's moody and atmospheric explorations of terror are all emblematic of the giallo genre, offering a visual intensity and depth that is often unmatched by his successors. Black Sabbath demonstrates Bava's compulsion to explore the perceptions and manipulations of truth. He masterminds the illusions and spectres in a shadowy world where the natural and artificial (or supernatural) are blurred and contradictions are revealed. I highly recommend watching the Italian version of Black Sabbath in order to appreciate Bava's unique vision as it was intended.